It’s been a super exciting week for me and several fellow travelers (Marlena Novak and Jay Alan Yim, ably assisted by Kyle Liske) at the STRP Festival of Art and Technology, here in Eindhoven Holland (about a two-hour train from Amsterdam). It’s the world premiere of a bio-art piece, called scale, I’ve been involved in making and that I wrote a bit about previously for SNF.
In brief, scale is based on the discharges of South American weakly electric fish. By lucky coincidence, the highly regular electric discharges of these fish happen to occur at a frequency that allows them to be heard when they are amplified and played through a speaker. The fish use the discharges as a radar system to perceive their dark world, which are Amazon Basin rivers at night.
The idea behind the piece is to take a dozen different species, and have one individual per species on a tall frame with its own amplifier, speaker, and control circuitry. You stand on a podium in the middle of an arc of 12 of these frames (as shown above), with the fish ordered by increasing electric organ discharge frequency from left to right, and use a wireless game controller (the Nintendo Wiimote) to select which fish(es) you listen to. A touchpad interface on the podium gives you sliders to adjust volume and buttons for real-time effects for each fish. In this way you conduct your own choir of electric fish.
I’ve been on a short hiatus from blogging as my laboratory gets set to go to Eindhoven, Holland, for the STRP Festival, one of the largest art and technology fairs in Europe. We are putting the finishing touches on scale, an interactive bio-art collaboration between myself, visual/conceptual artist Marlena Novak, and composer/sound designer Jay Alan Yim, who together form localStyle.
As is often done in biological work, my research at Northwestern University focuses on one specific type of animal—an electric fish from the Amazon jungle—which is ideally suited to uncover the answers to our research questions. These questions are chiefly in the area of how we take in information through our various sensory systems and control movement. We build biologically inspired robots based on what we find. These robots feature novel ways to sense and move that could be very useful for new highly agile underwater robots to help with things like monitoring the health of coral reefs or fixing an underwater oil spill.
Our Amazon jungle fish are called “weakly electric fish.” These fish have evolved the remarkable ability to sense the objects around their body through a self-generated weak electric field (about a thousandth of a flashlight battery near the body). Think of them as underwater bats—like bats, they hunt at night, but instead of using sonar, they use electric fields.
A surprising demonstration of this ability is very easy to get with nothing more than a cheap powered speaker, like the type you would connect to your computer. By just dangling the input lead into a tank with one of these fish, you’ll hear a nearly pure tone (something like a tuning fork). The pitch of the tone that you hear depends on the species. Across the 180 or so species that exist, the tone frequency varies from about 30-1200 Hz, approximating the lowest B-natural on a piano to the D- sharp six octaves higher.
To celebrate DISCOVER’s 30th anniversary, we asked great minds of science to tell us their hopes for the future. But science fiction already knows what happens next. Just take these predictions for the next millennium, along with some near misses gone by during our first three decades.
1984: Big-screen TVs are good for government control and workout videos.
1997: IT issues lead to artificial intelligence–and cause nuclear war.
As part of my irregular series on Improbable Robotics (such as my post a couple of weeks back on a robot that rocks you to sleep), today we peer into the mind of a creative roboticist from Switzerland, Auke Jan Ijspeert, who is leading a project to develop robotic furniture. I visited Ijspeert’s lab, and the astonishing Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne building, a few weeks ago. Ijspeert’s project, called Roombots, builds on the idea of “modular robotics.” Modular robotics is like roboticized LEGO: Instead of having to build every robot from scratch, we build modules that each have capabilities to sense and to move. These modules have built-in mechanisms to self-assemble into different robots. Here is a quick peek at where Roombots are headed:
Modular robotics is inspired by biology on two different levels:
1) The understanding that the secret of the dizzying diversity of life is modularity: having basic building blocks of the body that lead to mutations in which whole functional modules are duplicated or removed.
Roboticist Robert Riener at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich has developed a new robotic bed for sleep research and therapy. The Somnomat uses a system of cables attached to the posts of a suspended bed to move the bed in whatever sleep-inducing pattern the researcher/insomniac wishes to test/try to fall asleep with. He reported it during a recent conference in Lausanne on “Engineering Life” that I also gave a talk at. A short video of it is here.
There has been a something of a renaissance of interest in sleep. It is, after all, something we engage in daily for about a third of our lives without tiring of the activity. There are a lot of consequences of not doing it well. For one thing, we can become an emotional wreck when we don’t get enough sleep. In healthy people that are sleep deprived, the part of the brain that regulates emotion becomes hyperactive, in a fashion similar to what is seen in depressed individuals. For me it’s one of the most reliable side effects of not getting enough — suddenly events or things people say that would otherwise be neutral have a much higher chance of affecting me emotionally. Sleep appears to be essential for remembering things we learn over the long haul. Most recently, there’s evidence that lack of proper sleep before the age of five can significantly increase the chances of being obese later in life.
For all its importance to our well-being, you might think we would have a handle on everyday observations of what makes people more likely to fall asleep. For example, rocking a baby has been known to help put babies asleep probably even before we had the language to express this. There is a similar effect of rhythmic movement on adults. Yet, why it is we find rhythmic movement soporific is not currently known. Surely knowing more would be very helpful: how much movement is best for falling asleep? Should it just be for falling asleep, or continue after that? What is the best pattern of movement? How does this mechanical approach compare to other approaches, such as drugs? These and other questions can be addressed with the somnomat. If it turns out to be as beneficial as generations of experience of rocking our children asleep would suggest, then getting these details right could be immensely useful for designing a new kind of automatically moving bed that helps people fall asleep. Some updates to our favorite lullabies may be needed…
Rock-a-bye baby, on the robotic treetop,
When the servomotors turn, the cradle will rock,
When the robot breaks, the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.
30,000 years ago a Neanderthal woman died in what would become Croatia’s Vindija cave. Five years ago, 454 Life Sciences and the Max Planck Institute started working together on the tedious and time-consuming task of piecing her fossilized DNA back together. Just over a month ago, they succeeded and, in the process, revealed that most of us are between 1% and 4% Neanderthal. To crudely paraphrase the ever artful Carl Zimmer, knowing where Neanderthals fit into the evolution of Homo sapiens is essential to understanding the development of the human mind.
Knowing where Neanderthals fit, however, also creates a problem. What do we do if what makes humans “human” isn’t from a “human” at all? How do we justify “human rights” in light of evidence that our rational and moral minds are in no small part the result of prehistoric crossbreeding? In short: if human rights are based on being human, what rights would a cloned Neanderthal have?
The problem is, of course, that we don’t have a cloned Neanderthal. Which is why we need to make one.
New York Times bestselling author Scott Sigler has just come out with another novel in the fast-moving, horrific, science-tastic style that he’s made his trademark. The new book is about a creature engineered to be the perfect organ donor–the ANCESTOR of the title–and he (and his publisher, Crown) have agreed to let us run an excerpt right here on SNF for your reading pleasure. To entice you to read on, check out the great blurbs from these top-notch reviewers:
“ANCESTOR isn’t science fiction. It’s science acid-trip pulp-horror, an irresistible genre unique to Scott Sigler’s wonderfully warped mind.” —Carl Zimmer
“Fun, creepy, and impossible to stop reading, ANCESTOR is the rare thriller that’s based on cutting-edge science and is entirely possible. Long after you’re done with the book, you’ll still be looking over your shoulder. Just in case.” —Phil Plait
Without further ado, here is your ANCESTOR excerpt:
Okay, okay, accelerated pregnancy isn’t real (yet). It’s a (not-so) fictional assisted reproductive technology imagined by Tze Chun in his short film, “Silver Sling,” which is part of the FUTURESTATES project by the Independent Television Service. In addition to accelerated surrogacy, at 92Y Tribeca’s screening of FUTURESTATES films, I was treated to human-plant chimeras, self-aware androids, and a picture of just how much worse Arizona’s draconian immigration laws are going to be in 15 years. My favorite, “Silver Sling,” follows the story of a young Russian immigrant, Lydia (pictured above auditioning for potential parents). Faced with financial woes and no job, she plans to become a surrogate mother for the third time–a decision that could potentially render her sterile for the rest of her life. Lydia is forced to choose between her present problems and her future hopes.
While the film itself is wonderful, what made “Silver Sling” stand out was Chun’s treatment of the technology. Accelerated surrogacy in “Silver Sling” isn’t good or bad, it merely is, with the ethics being different for each person involved. The complicated issues Chun brings to light are those currently pressing some surrogate mothers: their own desire for children, the risks and burdens of the procedure, and the “no-other-option” mentality driven by the problem of economic need. Even with the science-fictional elements of “Silver Sling”–the accelerated surrogacy and the fact that surrogate mothers are cared for by the assisted-reproduction company–it still feels intensely realistic.
If you have even a passing interest in science, it was hard to miss the big, bold headlines splashed across newspaper front pages and websites a few weeks ago: “Scientists Create New Life.” I’m talking, of course, about Craig Venter’s latest research breakthrough, which, as most of you reading this may already know, consisted of inserting an artificial genome into a bacterial cell and coaxing it to life.
More specifically, his team of scientists replicated the design for an existing 1,080 base pair bacterial genome and had Blue Heron, a firm based in Bothell, WA, construct it by stitching together chemically synthesized oligonucleotides (the building blocks of DNA). The 1,080 bp genomes, also known as cassettes, were grown in yeast cells and, following a series of steps in which the intermediate assemblies were checked for errors and compatibility issues, inserted into the hollowed out recipient cells.
While much has been said about whether or not this feat constitutes the creation of a “new” life form (and, like many far more illustrious individuals, I happen to think it doesn’t), what is clear is that there is still much more work to be done before we get to the point when we can easily build cells and boot them up with specialized “software” to produce fuel, anti-malarial drugs or any number of biological derivatives.
The world of Surrogates, people venture forth into the world via sleek and sexy avatars from the comfort of elaborate wireless hookups in their bedrooms. Life…Only Better goes the technology tagline. In theory, the scene won’t take place for another half century – unless you’re watching the film in Los Angeles, in which case it all looks strikingly familiar.
Surrogates – which opens today – stars Bruce Willis as a police detective trying to track down the killer with a weapon that can disable avatars while simultaneously killing their users. While his avatar is younger, stronger and has a full head of hair, back home, he’s lost the connection with his wife, who only interacts as an avatar.
The cautionary tale looks at a technology that’s meant to give mobility and a new lease on life to the wheelchair-bound or hideously disfigured and has been usurped by a pleasure-seeking populace. Think Second Life on acid. It’s easier to shell-out money for an avatar than a gym membership.